When Miss Fletcher kindly asked me if I wanted to write a guest post for her charmingly exuberant blog – a post concerning the writing process behind my first published novel, which is also probably the seventh novel I've written, but keep that to yourself, OK? I want to keep hold of some dignity if possible... – the first thought that came to mind was: yes Penelope, Yes Miss Fletcher, I love writing guest posts! That would be excellent!
The second thought quickly put me right, however, and it was so loaded with sarcasm that I nearly fell out of my chair (except I could not, as the chair I was in wouldn't allow me to, which only compounded my embarrassment): Chris, you fool, you've never actually written one guest post!
And it was true; my inner voice – whatever you want to call it – wasn't being sarcastic without good reason. It never is.
So there I was, on virgin territory; not only that but I had to go back in time in my head, back a-year-and-a-half, and do some serious thinking. Which was tricky for two reasons: 1) when I started writing The Number 3 Mystery Book I was still recovering from a near fatal virus which I now try and avoid thinking about as much as possible, as you do, and 2) my memory isn't as good as it used to be. It was bad enough before I got sick, and after the illness, as is common, it was even worse. Somewhere along the way, I lost a part of myself, which was also a bit of a spanner-in-the-works. Having Dyscalculia also doesn't help much; the big D is a double whammy, you could say...I'm both bad with navigating space – either mentally or physically – and utterly useless when it comes to remembering numbers and dates.
Some people get all the luck, right?
I know what you might be thinking – second to Chris would you please hurry up and get to where you started writing the damn book, I expect – and I agree wholeheartedly: it's fortunate for you that writers don't need to rely on their memory, Chris! Otherwise where would you be?
Answer: where I am. Struggling with where to begin...
One thing is sure about how it all started, though – I wanted to write something completely new to me, even if it did mean wrestling with some sinister ghosts of the past. Something I had no experience of, something daunting. As everyone knows, writing can be a real comfort-zone thing. If you're not careful you can spend years writing the same sentences, heading in the same direction and never quite getting there. By contrast, writing something daunting isn't like that at all. Every paragraph is an immense leap-of-faith. Soon, you're out of your depth, which is exactly where you need to be to progress. Almost drowning never felt so good.
What has surprised me most, so far, in reaction to the book, is the fact that so many people haven't heard of Cherubism – the ailment which affects Barney, the lead protagonist of the novel. What is Cherubism? you may ask. Well, you'd not be alone: it's a genetic condition which disfigures the face. Obviously there's more to it than that, but essentially it's a big issue when you're growing up in a world which – generally speaking – fears the unknown and doesn't feel the need to even begin to understand.
This, I suppose, is what made me want to write about Cherubism, and not Cherubism in particular, but disability in general and how it is perceived. Having been completely incapacitated myself on two separate occasions – once thanks to sleep paralysis and 2 years later when struck down suddenly by another surprise episode – and faced with the prospect of being in a wheelchair forever, the urge to write this kind of a novel was overpowering. And it was then that I really started looking into Cherubism and its associated conditions. Not just the physical and factual elements of it all, but the emotional aspects which hurt even more. The things which very few of us are faced with in our day-to-day lives. The things which you simply can't know, and even I don't fully understand after hours of reading various accounts.
But I didn't just want it to be a book about a 13 year-old boy with Cherubism, of course. That – focussing purely on the bummers of it all – would potentially be quite depressing. And not just depressing but abstract and out there. In my experience, the best books are those which we can all associate with to some degree. For instance, you don't need to be a serial killer to associate with a crime novel – which is a good job – but everyone knows what it's like to fear things, right? This was when the ideas really came together and the whole plot hit me.
Authors often talk about how they planned a book meticulously. It began as a seed, they researched, it evolved – that kind of a thing. With me, on this occasion, that didn't happen. What did happen was I woke up in the night a few weeks after researching Cherubism and had the entire novel there in my head just like that: an instant download arriving in one piece. It was a rare event which I'll never forget. Soon as I woke up I knew precisely where the book was headed, and I started scribbling down the plot.
In an hour I had it all down – how Cryptozoology would play its part, Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet considered real by mainstream science – and, aside from a few fairly minor plot details, it was complete.
But don't be jealous. It hasn't happened since and I seriously doubt it'll happen again, and nor would I want it to. In fact, if it does then I suspect I'll sincerely wish it hadn't.
I say that because the following three weeks were frantic, sleepless and assaulting at all times of the day and night. If I wasn't writing the novel as fast as I could physically manage without giving myself a heart-attack – and slacking on my freelance work... – I was waking up in the dead of night to record some all-import-detail before it was lost forever.
Fortunately it paid off. I think. The first-draft was done within the month. It was largely a
mess – typos everywhere, tangents of the gigantic Wow-that's-really-nothing-to-do-with-anything variety, plot holes galore – but the story was there. It just needed refining...a lot. I didn't even start on that for 4 or 5 months, knowing that the idea needed time to breathe. Instead, I used the better judgement I had amassed from making the write-the-second-draft-too-soon-and-totally-balls-it-up mistake countless times before and gave it to a friend to read. In my quest to uncover every potential problem imaginable, I deliberately gave it to someone who I knew would beat the crap out of it. Someone who was well-known for being blunt and pointing out things which most people would be far too kind to address. I was not let-down. When it came back the feedback was generally good, but there were a few areas which needed a decent amount of work and were almost-total-crap.
I didn't mind: writing a novel is all about the second draft, and don't let anybody tell you any different, because they are lying!